Estrangement is commonly defined as the intentional choice by one or more relatives to end contact because of an ongoing negative relationship. Primarily based on emotions, not facts, estrangement can bring unimaginable heartbreak to families.
I implore you to seek help if the above describes you, as the numbers are staggering. Twenty-seven percent of Americans eighteen and older have cut off contact with a family member: 10% parent/child, 8% siblings, 9% extended family (i.e. grandparents and cousins).
A woman living in the Midwest has not spoken to her son and his wife for seven years because she asked her daughter-in-law to bring a specific dessert to a family gathering. The daughter-in-law deliberately brought the same one that the woman had baked. The mother-in-law interpreted the dessert as a symbol of total disrespect (Catherine St Louis, Dec. 2017).
Another story describes denying access to grandchildren, reflecting estrangement from adult children who act as the gate-keeper “middle” generation. Dr. Pat Hanson had been seeing her granddaughter monthly until she was four years old, when her mother separated from Dr. Hanson's son. The mother halted visitation and stopped answering phone calls. Dr. Hanson does not even know their address. She has composed hundreds of letters to her granddaughter (now seventeen), and they are kept in a wooden box. She holds on to the hope that "One day she will want to search for her roots and will look me up" (Paula Span, July 2020).
Are these cut-offs driven by the expectation that parents, not children, are primarily responsible for maintaining the parent-child relationship? Perhaps. Some of the stressful experiences and circumstances that contribute to parent-child estrangement include: psychological abuse/neglect, poor parenting, betrayal, parental incarceration, drug abuse, disagreements, politics, and matters relating to business, inheritance, and money. Other factors include: feeling a lack of support, acceptance, or love from the estranged family member. Sometimes there are differences in values and the feeling that a family member’s behavior is toxic (Lucy Blake 2017).
Cornell Sociologist Dr. Karl Pillemer adds these pathways to estrangement: harsh parenting, parental favoritism, and parental divorce. Another discovery of Pillemer is that long simmering family feuds may culminate in a "volcanic event". Often, when this occurs, one family member declares "I'm done.”
People who are estranged feel deep sadness and long for reconnection. Oh, how they wish they could just turn back the clock and act differently to prevent a rift.
Desperately, parents try to maintain contact by making phone calls that are not answered and sending letters, texts, and emails that are ignored. Cards and gifts that are sent for life cycle events are returned to the sender unopened. A common theme for both parents and adult children is loss. Parents lose their voices as they cannot apologize and try to make things right or find out why the estrangement happened in the first place. Adult children feel the loss of family and miss the emotional, financial, and practical support.
Why try counseling with a licensed therapist? For starters, if you currently have no relationship whatsoever with a given family member, and the goal is to regain “some type of connection”, go for it. The goal is not "all is forgiven". Whatever steps you take to forgive will lift a burden from your shoulders. Dr. Janis Spring explains that there are degrees of forgiveness; it is not a black and white decision.
One goal is to take positive steps toward opening a line of communication. Here is the model that I use when coordinating reconciliation for family estrangement. I firmly establish with the family members that my office is a blame-free zone and a shame-free zone. Anyone who makes disparaging comments or raises their voice will be muted on the Zoom call. Repeat offenders will be placed back in the Zoom waiting room until they calm down.
Next, I use the principles of Discernment Counseling, which combine solo time with joint-session time. The primary goal is not to fix the issues, rather it is to determine if the issues are fixable. I suggest to the person who calls me that they should reach out to their estranged family member with this message: "I’m inviting you to explore the idea of opening communication between us with Dr. Singer acting as a moderator to create a safe space and I will pay for the session. Can the three of us meet via Zoom and talk about positive change?"
In sessions, I do my best to offer practical advice. I suggest to family members that they should not expect their relative to change in order to meet their expectations. Perhaps it is their expectations that need to change instead.
Pillemer believes that time spent waiting for an apology is time that is wasted. He concludes: "Focus on building a new future that can eclipse the past!" Those who are able to reconcile have one main strategy: to abandon the need for the estranged relative to accept their version of the past and apologize. They focus on the present and future of the relationship. They adopt realistic expectations about the other person rather than trying to change them. Reconcilers come to understand their own role, i.e. engaging in self-examination about their own level of responsibility.
Even unsuccessful attempts to reconcile sometimes lead to greater peace of mind. How so? According to Dr. Pillemer, most individuals felt much better after the reconciliation even if it was not perfect. There was a sense that it might be difficult, but they weren't carrying that "backpack" around anymore; a substantial weight was lifted off their shoulders.
The Navi (prophet) Malachi (3:23) best expresses the hopes of Klal Yisrael (The Jewish People): “Behold, I will send you Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet) before the coming of the great and awesome day of G-d. And he shall turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to their parents.”
Dr. Alan Singer has been a marriage therapist in NJ & NY since 1980 with an 80% success rate in saving marriages of couples on the brink of divorce. He coordinates reconciliation for family estrangement, is a Certified Discernment Counselor, blogs at FamilyThinking.com, and is author of the book, Creating Your Perfect Family Size (Wiley). All sessions use Zoom. His mantra: I’ll be the last person in the room to give up on your marriage. firstname.lastname@example.org (732) 572-2707